Why the Real North Korea Threat Isn't Its Nuclear Weapons
Friendly neighbors and wide oceans. That, in a phrase, is America's security plan. North Korea? Simply not a threat, says foreign policy expert Michael Desch.
Michael Desch is Professor and Director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame. He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008. Prior to that, he was Professor and Director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. From 1993 through 1998, he was Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate at the Olin Institute. He spent two years (1988-90) as a John M. Olin Post-doctoral Fellow in National Security at Harvard University's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and a year (1990-91) as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California before joining the faculty of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside (1991-1993).
He received his B.A. (With honors) in Political Science (1982) from Marquette University and his A.M. in International Relations (1984) and Ph.D. in Political Science (1988) from the University of Chicago. He has worked on the staff of a U.S. Senator, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, and in the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service.
He is author Cult of the Irrelevant: Political Science and the Relevance Question in American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, forthcoming 2018); Privileged and Confidential: The Secret History of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012) with Kenneth Michael Absher, Roman Popadiuk, and the 2006 Bush School Capstone Team; Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); and When the Third World Matters: Latin America and U.S. Grand Strategy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
Michael Desch: The United States is remarkably secure. But you wouldn’t sort of get that sense if you listened to our President or the members of Congress who constantly are finding threats out there to America’s security. And I don’t want to be in the position to deny that there are challenges out there, but I’d really strongly urge us to put these challenges in their proper context.
So let’s talk about one of the challenges du jour: The North Korean regime under the odious dictator Kim Jong-un’s frenetic and sustained pursuit of a nuclear capability.
There’s no doubt that the North Korean regime is a terrible regime, inflicting suffering mostly on its own people, and I freely concede that the world would be better off if they didn’t have a nuclear capability.
And the question then is, “How much of a threat does this pose to the United States?” And my answer, contrary to the hyperventilating that you see in a lot of the discussion of this topic, is that it really doesn’t change things very much.
To begin with, the United States is one of the largest nuclear powers in the world. Currently our arsenal consists of about 4,000 nuclear warheads that are deliverable in a wide variety of very reliable packages.
Contrast that with North Korea, which may have 20 to 30 atomic devices that may or may not be deliverable on anything other than short range ballistic missiles.
Now most people would concede that the balance is very much in our favor but say, “Look, this is a crazy regime. I mean, couldn’t this be a case in which a madman has his finger on the nuclear trigger?”
And I don’t want to defend Kim Jong-un’s rationality or his sartorial choices, but I would say he’s learned the lesson that many other dictators have learned from Saddam Hussein and from Muammar Gaddafi, which is: if you don’t want to be invaded by the United States, build whatever rudimentary nuclear arsenal you can.
Now, you can’t eat nuclear weapons, and a residual nuclear arsenal I think is no guarantee that the North Korean regime won’t collapse of its own internal rottenness. In fact I anticipate that that’s what will happen. And that will present its own set of challenges.
But they’re a very different set of challenges than the ones that we’ve been talking about in the general political discourse about the North Korean nuclear threat in our country.
So the question then is what the United States should do about North Korea? The challenge that the United States faces is when the regime goes south—as it invariably will, it won’t be tomorrow, it could be five years, it could be ten years—it’s going to pose to the United States a challenge.
And the challenge involves two elements. First of all the United States and the South Koreans will be tempted, if a civil war starts in the north or even if there’s just a large scale social unrest, to intervene. The South to reunify their country, the United States to try to clean up the nuclear capability.
But the problem is that there’s another great power with a big equity in North Korea, and that’s China.
And the Chinese are not particularly fond of the Kim regime, but they’re sort of stuck in a dysfunctional marriage with them.
They don’t want a reunited Korea under Seoul with nuclear weapons on their border. And so the real problem that we face is how we manage the inevitable endgame of a collapsing North Korea with China.
And here the solution is an explicit set of discussions and agreements with the Chinese about what will happen in this context.
And I think we’d be well advised to start now dialoguing with the Chinese about the future. And I think a unified Korea, but also one without nuclear weapons and nonaligned, without a major U.S. military presence could be the deal that would work for everybody.
Friendly neighbors and wide oceans. That, in a phrase, is America's fallback security plan. It happens to be a very effective security plan, says Michael Desch, although you wouldn't know it by listening to politicians. Their squawking about threats to America are more the result of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex and America's history of interventionist foreign policy. Case in point: North Korea. The hermit kingdom's nuclear weapons are a defensive strategy, not an offensive one. Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who wants his family to stay in power, not risk the complete erasure of his country. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
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